Famous Executions in America

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Capital Punishment (execution) is legal in 32 of the 50 states that make up the USA. It is declining in popularity with six states having abolished it since 2007 and judges in those states that retain it are far less likely to proclaim the death penalty as a punishment. There is in 2013 still in the region of 3000 people on Death Row. There are a large number of notable executions through America’s history; here is a list of the most famous milestones or notorious people to face the electric chair, lethal injection or gas chamber.

1. Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh
Timothy McVeigh

The most famous domestic terrorist was responsible for the biggest terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11 (the Oklahoma City bombing). He was a military veteran who went on a personal vendetta against the Federal government for its handling of the Waco siege. He is only one of a handful of men executed by the Federal rather than state governments and he was the first since 1963 convicted and executed under Federal law. He was also barred from burial in a military cemetery.

2. Aileen Wuornos

Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

America’s most notorious female serial killer (but not the first) was responsible for the death of seven men. In defence she would claim that though she was a prostitute, each of the men had raped or attempted to rape her. She maintained this self-defence approach even though in some cases it was demonstrated that at least one of the men she killed had not attempted to harm her. The film Monster starring Charlize Theron was a biopic of her adult life up to an including her arrest and conviction.

3. Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy

The most notorious serial killer in American history was a convicted abductor, murderer, rapist and necrophiliac. During the late 1960s and 1970s he murdered in the region of 30 women. He denied it right through his trial but eventually confessed to the killings on the day of his execution. He had no redeeming features ‘ everyone who met him claimed that he was a sociopath who took delight in inflicting pain on others. Even his Defence Attorney declared him ‘the definition of heartless evil’.

4. Mary Surratt

Mary Surratt
Mary Surratt

The first woman executed in USA was a part of one of the country’s biggest historical events ‘ and most people do not even know her name. She was executed for her complicity in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Her son has been involved in a plot to kidnap the President but during the trial, her own involvement became apparent ‘ she covered up her son’s complicity and had actually delivered the guns to the tavern ahead of the assassination. Andrew Johnson was asked to show her clemency but famously stated that Surratt had ‘kept the nest that hatched the egg’.

5. Giles Corey

"Giles Corey's Punishment and Awful Death", illustrator unknown
“Giles Corey’s Punishment and Awful Death”, illustrator unknown

It was not just women executed at the Salem Witch Trials. Of the 25 victims, five were men. All but one was hanged. One man though failed to enter a plea ‘ this was Giles Corey. It was common practice and had been in Europe for several hundred years to ‘press’ an accused to make them plea any which way. This involved the application of pressure, usually heavy stones on a board to impose so much pain that they are compelled to plea. Corey died after two days of pressing. We still use the term these days in court and on game shows ‘I must press you for an answer’.

6. Herman Mudgett

Herman Mudgett
Herman Mudgett

Widely recognised as America’s first serial killer, he was active in Chicago in 1893 during the World’s Fair when he opened a hotel (what he called his Murder Castle) which he designed for murdering his victims. He was responsible for and convicted of 27 murders but it has been rumoured that his actual list of victims could number as high as 200. After the closure of the World’s Fair he moved to Texas where he attempted to repeat his murder spree ‘ but was caught there. At his execution he calmly advised his executor ‘take your time and don’t bungle it’.

7. Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale Statue
Nathan Hale Statue

The Revolutionary War saw executions on both sides for treason. Both the British and the American Patriots had informants. The British colonial authorities believed that the crown was still supreme and therefore, anybody assisting the revolutionaries was guilty of treason. Hale is one of the most famous American revolutionary figures. He volunteered to spy on British garrisons in New York City but was captured and hanged. He famously declared ‘I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country’.

8. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

They were infamous for being the last Americans executed for treason. This happened in 1953 at the height of the Cold War; they were found guilty for having passed information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They were also the first people executed under the (then) new Espionage Act. Because there was no Federal electric chair – and this was a Federal crime – they were both transferred to the jurisdiction of New York State and electrocuted there. An accomplice was given 30 years in jail.

9. William Kemmler

William Kemmler
William Kemmler

This convicted murderer went down in history for being the first person executed in the electric chair. In 1889 he murdered his common-law wife with a hatchet. Due to the nature of the new method of punishment, his lawyers attempted to have the execution overturned in favour of another method. At his execution, he did not die the first time. After a 17 second burst of 1000 volts, he was examined and discovered still to be breathing so the switch was thrown again with 2000 volts.

10. Robert E. Williams

Robert E. Williams
Robert E. Williams

Williams has gone down in history as the last man executed by electric chair in Nebraska. The year after his execution the state finally banned the practice as inhumane; the state now chooses lethal injection as its primary execution method. Its extra noteworthy point as a history making execution is that there are no longer any states using the electric chair as a primary method ‘ though in approximately half of those states that still have the death penalty, it is a secondary option.

Conclusion

It is not certain how much longer it will be before the death sentence is finally abolished in the USA. Though around 60% of the 50 states still use it, the electric chair is on the verge of abolition and judges are now far less likely to use any form of death penalty as a sentence for relevant cases. Soon as in Europe, being sentenced to death for a crime might soon be a thing of the past in the USA.

 

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